On Elitism and Law School

Early in my career, I was giving a tour to prospective law students. Part of the tour, and this will sound familiar to you if you are a recent or soon to be applicant, was to walk into one of our law school's moot court rooms, in this case the small and high-tech one, and show off the technology. This was 20 years ago, so the "technology" was that we had video cameras where we filmed students so they could watch themselves later. Amazing stuff that I was eager to show off.

I walked in to a professor speaking; he happened to have decided he would conduct his class in that room that day. Who knows why. As I put one foot inside he snapped around, sized me up for a long second, and proclaimed, "What are you doing in here, aren't you just staff?"

Because I was in my twenties, because I was new to my job, and because I was insecure about things like nearly every single one of us, I internalized this. For the first few years of my career, I thought of myself as "just staff" and different from faculty who were superior. Which, I should note, means if they were superior, at some level I must have thought of myself as inferior. Which is also absolutely absurd, and I'll get back to that.

If you are reading this, you likely have been a law student, are starting law school, or will at some point start law school. It will be new, and you will most likely be in your twenties (although, as I have also discovered, youth and elitism aren't really as intertwined as I once thought they were). As we have blogged about before, law school can feel a lot like high school. One of those most crippling dynamics is that it will feel elitist. But that elitism isn't even real; it's just perceptual. In fact, the very definition itself is self-defeating, so let me define it:

Elitism is when someone believes or pretends to believe they are better than someone else or better than others.

That's it. They aren't actually better. They either think they are, or they pretend to themselves that they are. And here is the amazing part: 99% are in the later category. They are pretending they are better for the very reason that they are insecure. Welcome to law school. In fact, welcome to life. So much of how we interact with one another is based on our need to deafen our own insecurities.

I want to let you in on a secret, of sorts, about academia. I said I would revisit the beginning of this blog. A few years after that "just staff" incident, an elder, wise and kind emeritus professor took me to lunch. I don't remember why or anything we talked about at lunch. This was many years ago. But I do remember something he told me as we walked back across campus to the law school: "Never forget this, Mike," he said, "those who find themselves in academia are the most insecure people on the planet." To this day, but not a second before then, I have seen that play out in the most trivial and saddest of ways. When I see faculty on Twitter rampages arguing with one another over the most tiny of issues that soon are just ad hominem attacks where the intellectual debate is entirely forgotten, I think back to that walk across campus. I realize how silly it all is, or to call someone "just" something.

It might be hyperbolic to say that one piece of advice changed my life – but it did change my career. In fact, it wasn't soon after that when my career started to take off. And it took off in part because I stopped worrying so much about what others thought, how they perceived me, or if I should take jobs at "higher ranked" schools, (you hear this day in and day out in academia). In fact, each of the two jobs I took were at lower ranked schools where I thought I could make a difference and build upon my career.

If you are a living breathing person in this society you have already encountered elitism. You'll see it in full effect in law school – or at least the odds are incredibly high that you will. It's not just because of the high school atmospheric pressures we have blogged about. It is also passed down from faculty as I have alluded to. I should note that many of the most wonderful people in my life — some of my closest friends and confidants — are faculty members without a shred of insecurity or elitism. In fact, most faculty I know don't fit into that elitist category. My point is that it isn't just a law student effect; it's happening all around you in law school even if you don't see it. And while the faculty around you are all going to seem brilliant (that is a constant for law students), what matters is never how smart they seem, but in how they treat others. Faculty will become your mentors, and your mentors, I believe, should come from that pool alone.

I'll conclude with this: I am currently reading Stephen King's "On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft." He talks in the book about how when he was barely getting by, working odd jobs and writing when he could without much success, he would fantasize about having a magnificent oak wood desk. A true writer's desk. It would be huge and in the center of his study. Not his words now, but it would dwarf others. He eventually found success and bought the desk. It sat in the middle of his room drowning out everything else. Yet he was still deeply insecure about his writing and, because of these insecurities, each night he would write he would drink. A case of beer or more a night. The desk looked grand and he surely should have felt grand there in the center of his room writing at a desk more important than any other – yet he still felt incredibly diminished. When King got his life on track and became sober, he got rid of the desk and to this day has a small one in a corner enclave of his room. Sitting at the small desk in the corner is a testament to how secure he now feels about his writing and himself.

Don't worry so much about seizing the grand desk in the middle of the room. Those that are desperately trying to, that is the litmus test that elitism matters to them, but in that very test is the simple fact that there is nothing better about them. In law school, with its rankings and intellectual capital emphasis, so many people will pretend they are there – at the big desk in the middle of the room. I encourage you to embrace the small corner desk – because it and you are going to be whatever you want to be, and there is no amount of elitist attitude, law school rank, or insecurity from anyone else than can take that away from you.